Papa is a man who does not talk a lot. I do not know if he has always been this way or is just the way he is now. I know how hard he works. He does anything he can to earn us money from working in an abattoir processing corpse of dead animals to helping Jewish families move their belongings when they have been evicted from their homes. It means that he is so tired when he gets home the words that come out of his mouth are mostly no more than grunts and single syllables. Often, he goes right to sleep after dinner.
I also know that he has a hard life. He talks about the seven years he spent in a Siberian prisoner of war camp a lot. It is often an object lesson for me. “If I could spend 7 years in that hell hole there is no reason you cannot (fill in the task.) It is also the reason that Mama is not allowed to cook with onions. He has told us that for months on end it was the only food that they had to eat in the camp, and he swore when he left that he would never eat another.
But he never talks about his childhood. I have tried to ask him about it, but he is just grunts and changes the subject From the very few conversations I have had with him about his boyhood I have been told the very basic facts. He grew up a little town in Galicia. That he had a troubled relationship with his father, a livestock broker, because his father wanted him to be a scholar and Benno did not like school. When he turned 18, and started his mandatory military service he left, leaving behind a younger brother, and three sisters As far as I knew never went home again.
Truthfully, I did not think about his side of the family much. Mama had twelve brothers and sisters. Many of them lived nearby and I would see some of them almost every day. The others like my grandmother, who was really Mama’s oldest sister, we would visit from time or when the relatives who lived in Sopron came to Vienna they would visit with us. In fact, the only relative of my mother’s that I did not see very often was her younger sister Rachel, who had moved to Brazil the year before I was born. But we got wonderful letters from her about her new life in a town called Santos where apparently it was ridiculously hot, which didn’t agree with her, but where they played football all year. It sounded so wonderful there that I once asked Mama why we could not move there. It was before I knew that things cost money, and her response had been that she didn’t think she could learn Portuguese.
In other words, my hands were so full with Mama’s family that I did not have time to think of Papa’s family. Then the telegram arrived.
We were awakened at 2am on a warm June morning by a heavy knock at the door. This was before the Anschluss, 1936, so we were not frightened. . Back then the only reason people knocked on our door was an emergency like when Frau Zucker went into labor and Herr Zucker came to get Mama or when Papa’s friend was very drunk and started pounding on the door for him to come drink with him. But that morning it was not an emergency. My father opened the door and to his great surprise it was a messenger from Radio Austria with a Radiogram for him. It was shocking. We are not the type of family who gets a Radiogram.
Papa opened the message and he was so surprised with the message that he had to sit down on one of the chairs from the table where we ate. He looked as if he had seen a ghost. Mama called from the bed. “What is it Benno?” He did not respond instead he just kept muttering “Mein Gott, Mein Gott.” My mother was alarmed and clamoured out of bed and went to his side and putting her hand on his shoulder said, “What is it?” Instead of responding he simply handed her the telegram. After reading it, she said “Gott in Himmel” and promptly sat down next to him.
I was curious. I crawled out of bed and went to Papa’s side. “What does it say Papa?” I was handed the telegram. It read “June 16, 1936 2300 Oswiecim: Benno Floessel Otto Kringer Strasse 48 Wien. Will arrive 7:30 AM Friday At Train Station. Max Floessel.” I did not know what to make of the telegram. Friday morning was now. I had never heard of Max Floessel and where was Oswiecim? I had so many questions that I did not know where to begin but manage to blurt out “Who is Max Floessel?”
Papa, still in a state of shock replied “He is my younger brother. I have not seen him since I left Grodzisko in 1906.”
“But why haven’t you seen him.” I am an only child I couldn’t imagine anyone not wanting to see their brother as it is something that I had always wished I had. Papa replied “When I turned 18 I was conscripted into the Army and when I was released two years later I was too busy trying to make enough money to survive on to go home. Then in 1913, just before he turned 18 he decided he didn’t want to join the Army so he left and went to America. Then the war came. And I got captured. By the time I got back from Siberia we had lost track of each other. The only reason I knew he was still alive is from my sisters.”
“Sisters. I didn’t know you had sisters.”
He looked at me as if I were the crazy one. How could I not know that he had sisters? He was about to yell at me for being so stupid when Mama interjected “Benno, you never speak of your family. Never. How is the boy to know?”
Papa sighed and said “I have three sisters. Two live in Oswiecim and the other in a small village near Lodz. I was the oldest. And Max was the baby. Enough! Now if we are to be the Bahnhof by 7:30 to greet your Uncle we must try to get a few hours sleep.”
Uncle Max looked like an American gangster. He wore a three-piece dark blue pin stripe, a light grey fedora with a dark band that was perched on his hand at a rakish angle. Papa and him embraced with a lot of backslapping and a few tears. I had never Papa cry before and I was a little embarrassed by it but I guess when you have not seen your brother in over 30 years it is okay to have a tear or two.
Papa introduced Mama to him. After they had kissed each other on both cheeks he asked Mama what a pretty woman like her was doing with a man like his brother. I think Mama blushed. She was clearly charmed. Then it was my turn. He bent down to look me straight in the eye and then turned to my father and asked “Who is this little soldier.” Papa replied “This is Hugi. My son. Your nephew.” Max didn’t do the thing most adults do. Automatically assume that can give you a hug. Instead, he put out his hand and said “ Hugi, nice to meet you. I am your Uncle Max. I cannot wait to get to know you.” I didn’t say anything, I was shy when I was 11, but I shook his hand, but I knew instantly I liked this man who spoken German with an American accent.
The next two days were a whirlwind of activity. Max had never been to Vienna so we had to show the capital of the empire he was born into. I loved this part. Max would take me by the hand and say come on Hugi lets look at this together. Then, as we would walk around the Maria Theresa monument or whatever it was that we were looking at, he would whisper conspiratorially to me “Lets go and get some Palatschinken after this? As I have an unlimited capacity for pastries and sweets I would always agree.
On one of these expeditions into Vienna we happen to pass Winter’s department store. He said to Papa “Lets buy Hugi some clothes.” So off we went into the store and for the first time in my life I was purchased a suit and it had long pants. Up until that time I had never owned a pair.” While I was getting fitted, what an experience, I saw Max take a large roll of American dollars out of his pocket and peel off a few bills which he gave his brother and said “Here, when the time for Hugi to become a Bar Mitzvah, buy him suit so that he will be an honour to the family. Papa at first tried to push the money away but eventually accepted.
I never got that suit. Not because Papa did not save the money to buy it for me. I am sure he would have. But six weeks before my big day, on the Night of The Broken Glass, they burned our synagogue down. We could see it burn from our apartment. That is until they came and arrested my father but that is another story.
Mama and Papa also hosted a small party for Max in our apartment. All of Mama’s family was invited along with some of the ladies from Mama’s sewing group and a few neighbours. They all brough homemade cake and some of Mama’s friends helped us out by bringing plates and cups as we only had enough for ourselves. Some of the men brought along some schnapps which they used to keep keeping their coffee interesting. All of them wanted to know what life was like in America and peppered Max with questions about his life there. He was very patient with them. He told them his own story. He had arrived in America with the world on the brink of war. That he had worked hard to learn English and eventually got a job working in a grocery store. When prohibition had come along, he had opened up his own dry goods store that may have helped some powerful people skirt the law and he had been rewarded with a liquor license when prohibition had been repealed. Now, he was a US citizen owned two businesses, a home and a car and had an American wife. He told everyone that this was not him being lucky. That if you came to American and you worked hard, that life could be anyone’s.
I am not sure everyone believed him. It sounded too much like a fairy tale for most. It certainly did to me. A house, when all I had ever lived in was a one room apartment. It sounded impossible. I know it did for Papa too. Late that night, after everyone had gone and I had been put to bed, I overheard Mama and Papa having a conversation with Max. He was trying to convince them to immigrate to America. He told them he would do everything. He would find them both good jobs. An apartment or a house to live in. He told them that the schools were good where he lived. That I could get a good education. Perhaps even go to college. No matter what it would be better than breaking your back in an abattoir all day and not even be able to afford a bedroom of your own.
I got the sense that this hurt Papa’s pride. He was the older brother and clearly Max was living a better life that he was. He told Max that he was too old to leave this country and way too old to have to learn another language. “Besides” he added “They take so few people. How would we ever get a visa?”
Max was silent for a moment and said “Listen, there is a war coming. We see as far away as America And if what we read about Herr Hitler is true, it will be another pogrom. It will not be good for Jews here. As far as the quotas are concerned, I know people…people who owe me favors, people who can speed things along. .besides what harm could it be to apply. I will pay the fees and you can always say no.
By the time we saw Uncle Max off we had completed all the paperwork at the US Embassy required to apply for the Visa. They had told us there that the quota for Poles (applicants were classified by where you were born not lived) was 12,000 per year and the current wait time for a visa was 4 years. This seemed so distant in the future that it hardly worth thinking about. And it seemed we had forgotten all about our chance to go to America the minute we waved good bye to Max at the Bahnhof. Instead, we made other plans. More realistic plans. Papa and Mama to Poland and Tad and I would take Tomahawk down the Danube.